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Flavell: New approaches to youth justice

Bay of Plenty Policing District

Youth Aid/Youth Development NCOs Conference

Princess Gate, Rotorua

Wednesday 19 November 2008; 6.30pm

Te Ururoa Flavell, MP for Waiariki

They say in politics, a day is an awfully long time.

24 hours ago, Rotorua was the focus of media fascination for all the wrong reasons. The tragedy of child murder was provoking reaction from all quarters, about approaches to law and order.

And here I am today, speaking to those who uphold the law, having come directly from the formal swearing in ceremony of our Maori Party co-leaders, Dr Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, as Ministers of the Crown.

It seems to me an interesting context from which to share some of our thoughts about new approaches to youth justice.

From the outset, let me just state the obvious. We have some problems.

As I understand it, 5029 violent offences were committed by rangatahi in the last year – that’s 14-16 year olds I’m talking about.

Then there’s the equally depressing statistic that Maori youth offenders make up around 50% of all youth offenders, and in some Youth Courts the figure is as high as 80 or 90%.

That’s the bad news out of the way.

The good news is about recognising that most young people are brilliant – as a former teacher they inspired me with their energy, with their appetite for knowledge – and they are making a positive contribution to our society in many, many ways.

We need to get away from the focus only on trouble and in doing so overlook the amazing achievements that occur daily.

Sitting today in Parliament’s Grand Hall, listening to Pita and Tariana deliver their oaths in te reo, declaring their allegiance to take up the oath as a member of the Executive Council, I was extremely proud of them, proud of us, and proud for Aotearoa.

Four years ago, when we walked through Parliament Grounds, alongside some 50,000 other New Zealanders, who all joined the hikoi in protest at the Government’s refusal to allow Maori due access to justice, to have their day in Court, who would have ever thought that in such a short period of time our party would be appointed to the Executive.

We, in the Maori Party, have moved from a period of such injustice, a time in which we felt offended against, to now being honoured with the opportunity to be making and shaping the law.

So I say the time is right to be thinking of new approaches.

Yesterday, as the day drew to a close, many of us experienced the despair that comes with the loss of life, the brutal assault on an innocent child.

And yet as the dawn came today, we have new opportunities to make sure that the crisis of yesterday is not repeated.

You may be familiar with the whakatauki,

He ahiahi pokopoko, he ata hi tore

As the fire is extinguished, the light of dawn shines through.

Where there is hope, there is the promise of a better future.

Last year, I joined the beat with some of our local police, wanting to get an insight into this whole area of youth justice and youth offending. I experienced the emotion of being with an officer when he had to tell a parent that their child had been killed in a car crash. I was there checking on the curfew breakers.

It was a Wednesday night – probably like any other – but what struck me was that at 4am, there were still young people on the streets, pouring out of the nightclubs, destined for trouble.

The explosive mix of alcohol, drugs, and attitude was bound to take its toll.

I hear it is the same on many Saturday nights or Sunday mornings when there are regular fights outside local nightclubs and where Police are often outnumbered by rangatahi.

But one of the things that got me thinking, was the enormous amount of information the police seemed to have about various individuals. That one’s a drug dealer, that one’s a chronic thief, that one is on the run….it seemed some of the young people that we came across were already well known to the police, and it was simply a matter of time before their paths would cross again.

So I ask myself why wait for the inevitable to happen? This why I have been against a move by the local Council to arrest those who have three convictions from the CBD. Would it not pay the Council to look at preventive measures rather than wait for the inevitable to happen especially when you know who they are?

So what is the light of dawn that shines through in this situation? What is the hope that we can bring to reduce Maori youth offending and victimisation? And would we recognise it, if we stumbled across it?

Last night I received an email from a young Maori/Samoan man in Christchurch, Daniel Mataki.

Daniel is a youth worker in the heart of the city. He wrote to me about this young man he’d come across, called Carlos. Carlos was really buzzing out about a Maori/Cook Island rap artist called Young Sid, and in particular his latest CD, The Truth.

According to Daniel, Carlos was very much your average brown kid statistic – in and out of trouble, sporting gang colours, and not exactly the picture perfect background.

But Carlos was hooked on The Truth – and in less than a week after having purchased the CD, had memorised every word in the whole album.

It made me wonder, what it was that Young Sid was selling, that turned on the light for Carlos.

The message of Young Sid it seems was a story of everyday life in South Auckland. About the day-by-day reality of violence, alcoholism, drugs, suicide, gang warfare. A life in Young Sid’s words, where “people feed their addictions instead of feeding their kids”.

So I ask again, where’s the hope in that?

The hope comes from the fact that this album, The Truth, depicts another story – a story where someone has broken away from difficult circumstances, is doing something more positive with his life, and getting lots of support to do it. And now Young Sid has made a record, he is able to write about what happens in his environment, and he is showing that with unrelenting determination and belief in the power of change, he has created a new way.

And in doing so, that new way is in turn inspiring others – like Carlos – and indeed like Daniel the youth worker – to know that they too, can find a solution which works for them.

I return again, to the powerful example of change, that the swearing in ceremony for two Maori Party Ministers provides.

In the formation of a new Government, John Key demonstrated the willingness to carve out a new way forward for this nation.

His decision to invite the Maori Party to take up the opportunity to contribute to Government, is an approach which we gave considerable thought to.

Of course there were risks inherent in taking up the challenge to be part of the Government, rather than opposing it. Risks which are particularly heavy knowing the economic downtimes that are just around the corner.

But in our deliberations, the risks of turning down the opportunity were even greater.

We know that our people are proud that the responsibility for their future is being taken seriously. Our job now is to link up with our people, to work closely together, to ensure that all of our aspirations and issues are given life.

It’s about stepping up to the plate, believing that we can and must make a difference, and that the solutions are in our own hands.

Just as the local cops have all the data on hand to label particular individuals as likely offenders; we in the Maori Party have all the information at our fingertips to describe, for instance, the chronic causes of Maori over-representation in the youth justice system.

Maori youth were three times more likely to be apprehended by Police, five times more likely to be prosecuted and between four and seven times more likely to be convicted of an offence/receive a Court order than his or her non-Maori counterpart.

One of the issues, identified by Judge Becroft, is that Maori youth were more likely to receive severe outcomes in the Youth Court, because of increased vigilance by the public and the police with regard to Maori youth.

Judge Becroft also suggested that Maori youth are more likely to be dealt with in the Youth Court, and consequently receive more severe sentences than by Family Group Conferences.

Judge Becroft concluded that this, and I quote, “raises the question of whether our legal system demonstrates a systemic bias against Maori young people”.

He’s not the only person who has raised such concerns of course. The Ombudsman, Mel Smith, was so concerned about the nature of the criminal justice system that he recommended a Royal Commission should be set up not only to investigate the operational dysfunction, but to also to critically examine the philosophies and values that should guide its policies and practices into the future.

These issues – systemic bias, institutional racism – are issues which we are all particularly aware of in the Bay of Plenty as a result of the Ruatoki raids, and the subsequent distrust and hostility that our communities have expressed towards the role of the Police in this rohe.

The thing is – we know the environment of distrust exists – just like the police who do the beat know the likely youth offenders – just like the Maori Party knows the facts and statistics that create the context for understanding youth justice.

The critical issue is – how do we move from knowing to doing?

It’s one thing to know what’s wrong. It’s quite another to do something about it. How do we make the over-representation of Maori across the youth justice system a priority for us all?

It is not just a matter of addressing apprehension rates, prosecution rates, conviction rates.

It is a matter of taking responsibility, taking up the opportunity to show a new approach, to find workable solutions.

It might be looking around at successful stories. I’ve been really impressed at the activities that the Kawerau Blue Light Trust has established – events free from alcohol, drugs and violence, but events also which are designed to encourage better relations among the police, young people, their parents and the community.

It might be doing what our young social worker friend, Daniel, did. Putting himself in the shoes of the youth that came into his contact, literally playing the CD of Young Sid over and over again, until he worked out, what was turning on the light, what was making the difference.

It might be about putting energy into relationships. Working hard in Ruatoki to demonstrate respect.

In our Policy Manifesto we call this, ‘the cure is in the care’. By that we mean, that we want to see the community valued, we want to know that Government agencies are prepared and able to recognise and work with whanau on all issues that affect them.

Finding ways to connect with Maori communities which incorporate tikanga and whanaungatanga; which involve whanau; which convince the community that there is genuine commitment to getting things right.

We have a saying in Waiariki, Koina, that’s us. In many ways it’s the theme song of the Maori Party – I just have to convince the others in my team that it is.

For us, it’s about being proud of our distinctive and authentic presence.

It’s about having a strong and independent Maori voice in Parliament.

It’s about the expression of kaupapa tuku iho as the driving force of our policy. It’s about knowing who we are, and believing that our views matter, our positions count.

That to me, is the approach that the new Government has demonstrated. It seems a pretty good approach to take also, to these overwhelming concerns around youth justice, and youth wellbeing.

In conclusion, we can learn from successful models that provide a lead.

In my educational experience, certain elements when brought together have been instrumental in achieving positive results for Maori students. They include:

1. instruction in Maori language and culture;

2. a spiritual element;

3. teachers who care about them, are interested in them as people and go that extra mile;

4. being together as Maori - whanau. The successes of one are the successes of the whole;

5. possibly living together i.e Maori Boarding schools, trade training hostels

Here is a starting point to what can switch young Maori on.

The Kotahitanga research by Prof. Russell Bishop taught us that teachers must engage with their students for real learning to take place. This is especially the case if we are to address the failure of the education system to educate young Maori. Teachers must be culturally competent and the results seem to speak for themselves.

At Rotorua Girls High School for example, the results are a lift in education results, Maori taking up leadership positions and a real positiveness about being at school. Why? Because of some of the elements above but better still, teachers have reflected on their practice and changed.

Mita my relation here. has done wänanga on Mokoia for over twenty years with hugely successful outcomes for those under his tutelage. These include many of these young ones we label as “at risk”. The ingredients as I say are there.

We must be able to work together – as Maori and Police; Police with youth; whanau, hapu and iwi; politicians, police and the public; youth workers, youth aid officers with young people.

We must support a restorative justice system, where victims are empowered and the community acknowledged as an integral part of the solution to nurture relationships, and reduce crime.

That is when the light of dawn will truly come shining through.

When we can ensure the strength of our numbers collectively, is working to maximise the potential for all our young people to flourish and grow as they deserve to.


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